Literature Study GuidesBlack BoyPart 1 Chapter 10 Summary

Black Boy | Study Guide

Richard Wright

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Black Boy | Part 1, Chapter 10 : Southern Night | Summary

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Summary

After his experience at the optical company, Wright feels like a "non-man." He does not hate the men who threatened him. He writes, "They did not seem to be individual men, but part of a huge, implacable, elemental design toward which hate was futile."

Wright goes to work at a hotel where he has many African American coworkers. He is amazed at how well they play "the roles that the white race had mapped out for them." They seem content to spend their free time gambling and chasing girls, but Wright wants more. He begins saving money, but he can only manage a dollar a week. All around him he sees black people stealing from whites, but he does not want to join in. Looking back on this experience from an older perspective, Wright reflects that every African American he knew in the South stole constantly—and white people never seemed to mind. White people only minded Wright, "who wanted to look them straight in the eye, who wanted to talk and act like a man."

Wright wants to save $100 before he leaves home, but it will take two years to do this honestly. He is afraid of being murdered or thrown in prison far sooner than that. Slowly, he resigns himself to the idea of earning money dishonestly. At the hotel he is promoted to bellboy, and he sells illegal liquor to the white prostitutes. Later, he accepts a chance to work at a local movie theater and join a conspiracy of theft there. Terrified and miserable, he works the scheme for two weeks. He also steals and sells a gun and some cans of fruit preserves. When he finally has enough, he makes plans to leave town, resolving never to steal again.

Leaving his childhood home behind, Wright does not bother to say goodbye to anyone but his mother. She begs him to send for her when he can, and he says he is sorry she has spent so many years in this place. He leaves town in a blacks-only car on a train, reflecting on the life ahead of him and resolving to make the best of it.

Analysis

After his experiences at the optical company Wright feels defeated. The persistent pressures of racism make him feel less than human. He feels powerless because his unhappiness is not only caused by a couple of men, but by his whole society.

Unable to beat the system, Wright tries to work within it. But he does not want to be like other people. He wants to live with dignity, but this desire is essentially criminal in his culture. He notices with annoyance that stealing, which seems to him far more objectionable than self-respect, is rampant. He points out the irony that in the Jim Crow South, illegal behaviors are tolerated while legal ones are punished.

Wright does not want to steal, but he does not care about harming white people by taking their money. He senses that stealing helps solidify white power. But every day Wright lives with the risk of dying or being thrown in prison, even if he does follow the law. If he can get out of town, he can minimize this risk, and he ultimately decides breaking the law is his best option.

The night Wright finally leaves his grandmother's house, he says goodbye to his mother. This scene is one of the few moments of familial tenderness in the book. He seems truly sorry to leave his mother behind, and he apologizes for not getting her out of Mrs. Wright's house. His mother seems both afraid and happy for him, and she asks him to bring her to his new home when he has enough money.

The tenderness of the farewell scene with Wright's mother contrasts sharply with the lack of other goodbyes. Wright does not tell any other friends or family members he is leaving town. Leaving his childhood home and entering the world of strangers, he behaves as though everyone is already a stranger.

In spite of everything the final note of this chapter is one of hope. No longer a defeated "non-man," Wright looks forward to the future and plans to do the best he can with it.

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